Gov. Edwards apologizes on behalf of the state 50 years after two Southern University students were unjustly killed
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Gov. John Bel Edwards apologized Wednesday on behalf of the state after a civil rights protest on the campus of Southern University turned deadly 50 years ago.
“This was a stain they had to deal with all of those years. They knew they were right; they knew they didn’t do anything wrong; they knew they didn’t deserve what happened to them,” Edwards said.
On Nov. 16, 1972, after weeks of ongoing protests, students at Southern University peacefully gathered in Baton Rouge to protest the disparity of educational opportunities in Louisiana.
That morning, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, both just twenty years old, were killed when a law enforcement officer, who was never identified or prosecuted, fired into a crowd of students fleeing from tear gas.
In the aftermath, the Louisiana State Board of Education punished nine student leaders involved in that protest, who comprised the leadership of Students United at Southern University.
“There’s still a lot of loose ends and it’s still some work that needs to be done in getting justice for Denver Smith and our family,” Denver Terrance, Smith’s nephew said.
Terrance understands the chances of finding the person who killed his uncle is slim, but he said justice is still possible.
He said the governor’s apology and learning from the state’s past mistakes is a step in the right direction.
“The opportunity that we had for justice 50 year ago has passed, but there’s still an opportunity for restorative justice and I think that’s something we have to work towards,” Terrance said.
The LSU Cold Case Project explored the events that led up to the shooting, the day itself, and the aftermath.
Students from LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and the Southern Law Center studied nearly 2,700 pages of FBI documents and conducting dozens of interviews.They revealed the FBI was able to narrow down the shooter to three potential East Baton Rouge Parish deputies at the time, but a lack of cooperation from their coworkers stonewalled the case.
Research revealed that most of the sheriff’s deputies did not have any crowd control training when the shooting happened, and key deputies refused to take polygraph exams about what they knew.
“It’s really haunted the Southern community, and the black community, and it’s something that still resonates today,” Professor Christopher Drew said.Drew was one of the leaders behind the research project, and said this shooting resonates with a lot of problems we still see today.”We keep talking about this roster of people in Baton Rouge, George Floyd, others Black men, law enforcement, people getting shot, accountability issues, so this is really one of the earliest examples of that,” Drew said. Family members said there’s a lot of we can learn and take from that dark day.”It’s important to not let the story away, that’s important to the family, but I also think it’s important that we learn from the mistakes of the past. If you don’t, you’re doomed to repeat them, so I think this is an opportunity, not just an occasion, but it’s an opportunity for us to learn going forward,” Terrance said.
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